The Central African Republic - in and out again (of beauty)
Stepping across the border is not visiting a country. Traveling 100km beyond certainly is.
As I left N'Djamena in Chad I had roughly CFA 50,000 ($86,00) in my pocket. The line to the only ATM I knew of had some 30 people waiting for their turn with each of them spending around 4 minutes (2 hours). So I figured that I would find another ATM along the way. But I didn't.
A bus took me south from N'Djamena to Moundou where it arrived in the middle of the night. I put up my hammock and cought a few hours sleep until 06:00am, when the small muddy terminal again was buzzing with life. From there I located a public taxi and shared that with 5 others which is kind of a spacial luxury. Only having 4 passengers on the backseat and 2 on the front seat is almost a waste of space. The back of a Toyota Corolla can sometimes take 6 passengers and the front seat can take 2 while the driver shares his seat with a passenger too. That places 4 adults up front which looks very odd and makes maneuvering the pedals and changing gear far more difficult. But it isn't unusual...
Across the border and back into Cameroon we reached the terminal at Touboro. Here I was recognized by some of the terminal workers who came to great me before I got into another shared taxi which brought us to Ngaoundéré. I bought a ticket and waited for us to leave. They would announce the departures over an intercom but it would all be in french and the speaker quality was poor. But when I thought I heard my name I approached the announcer who told me to sit down and wait. I was exhausted and just wanted to get in the bus. But I waited for another hour and then approached the announcer again. Now he explained to me that I hadn't been there on time so they gave my seat to someone else?!? I argued that I had been there all the time plus that the bus was still there?! "Sorry, no more seats". Aarrrgghh! Okay, the next bus would leave in 1 hour (which turned out to be after 3 hours) so I waited again.
I watched as the bus left and a new arrived. I watched as the opened the side compartments and unloaded luggage. I watched as they opened the boot of the bus and unloaded some bags with rice and then pulled out a goat? What? Had that goat been standing in the back of the bus in the dark on the uneven roads? For how long? Then another goat...and another...and another...and then a dead goat :( I suppose that poor goat couldn't handle the rough ride. There was some debate about the dead goat which was casually dumped in the ground like a bag of rice. Then life went on and 3 more goats came out of the boot of the bus. And no one ever seamed to lift an eyebrow.
My bus finally left Ngaoundéré (with me in it) taking me south along the border of Cameroon and the Central African Republic (CAR). That got me as far as Bertoua after spending the night in the bus. These busses aren't exactly comfortable as the seats are very small and the roads are dented with potholes. And the nights are fairly much always interrupted by military and police checkpoints where everyone needs to get out and show ID. But it all adds to the flavor of the adventure.
I dodged all the offers I got in Bertoua for transport taking me to Yaoundé and walked for about 20 minutes until I reached a chaotic terminal with some mid-sized chubby buses. After standing in line for an eternity with my feet covered in mud I purchased a ticket and was soon inside one of these chubby buses. And as soon as we left Bertoua we were on a dirtroad surrounded by nature. I was seated next to Joseph from Yaoundé who was on his way to Batouri to build a school. Joseph is a manual worker and we did some small talk while the bus would pass small idyllic villages with basic housing, while the bus would dodge the largest holes in the red dirtroad, while it would rain and stop and rain again and while we would breakdown, repair and continue...
Eventually we reached Batouri but to my surprise there was no onward transportation that day because of rain and bad road conditions. That wasn't part of my plan. Joseph did what he could to help and after exhausting all opportunities we discovered that starting early the next day would probably be my best hope for continuing to CAR. In the process I gained a lot of information on how dangerous the area I was moving towards was which wasn't exactly comforting. Joseph invited me to come back to the family where he was going to live the next 3 months. We had some local food which as usual created some amusement while everyone would watch me eat it. I rather like most of it and it is no big deal to me. But in these rural areas it's still comparable to watching an alien spaceship land :)
Early next morning Joseph and I made it to the outskirts of Batouri where we had been advised that we were likely to flag a vehicle so I could hitch a ride. But after a while with no luck we started developing another strategy. I had seen some 4-wheel drive vehicles belonging to Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) which in English are known as Doctors Without Borders. I managed to stop another of these vehicles and spoke to a humanitarian worker who confirmed that they were on their way to the border. But I would need permission from their team coordinator before they could take me. "Perhaps you can go with another vehicle later today or one tomorrow morning?"
Joseph and I found the MSF field office and had a good talk with the responsible coordinator. He confirmed that they were operating at the border but at a border further north than the one I was aiming at. And he strongly advised against that I would cross where they worked as I could cost me my life. Great.
While leaving MSF I spotted another NGO with a lot of vehicles. So I talked Joseph into accompanying me there before he went to work. The one I spotted was ACF which is Action Contre la Faim or Action Against Hunger. I had not heard of them before but it turns out that they are a large operator and have existed for more than 40 years: www.actioncontrelafaim.org
ACF headquarters in Batouri
Inside I spoke with Isaac Masumbuko and was told that he was happy to help but that they weren't heading all the way to the border of Kentzou, where I was going. Their vehicles would stop at some of the refugee camps along the route. But that could bring me towards the border if I wanted? Then something changed and I was told that they now had a vehicle going to Kentzou leaving at 1pm "are you interested?" Oh yeah! Thank you!
I had not been connected to the Internet for several days so I wanted to find a connection before leaving for the border. Batouri is a nice little place...but it is little. And the local cyber café had closed. After a few failed attempt at other places where the shop owners really did EVERYTHING they could I opted for a new solution. I had seen an office of UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) and hoped that they would help me. And they did :) I entered the compound, shook some hands, met some people and was given the wifi password. Excellent! I was able to download and print an invitation letter for CAR which I no longer needed for a visa, which I had already obtained, but which would probably come in handy at checkpoints later on. People love paperwork and stamps...
Back at ACF I met Marine who was the reason why the vehicle was going to Kentzou. She had a meeting there and away we went. The road was pretty awful but I had seen worse. Then the road got worse. But I had still seen worse - hadn't I? Then it continued in the awful state and after around 100 kilometers of that I had to call it: this was the worst road I had ever been on!! Marine was laughing: "it will be even worse in CAR" she said.
We passed a refugee camp with 10,000 refugees. Later on we passed another camp which was home to 12,000 refugees. And by nightfall we reached Kentzou. The 4-wheel driver was covered in mud and the driver had no doubt done a good job. There was no way that I would cross the border during night. Not under circumstances like this. So I found a cheap room where Marine was staying and got an early start the next day.
Somewhere among all of this I ate half of one of these.
A motorcycle taxi (mototaxi) got me the last 10 kilometers to the border early next morning. We were the only ones on the red dirt road heading trough the fog in the rainforest. What would I encounter next? A military checkpoint gave my luggage the most thorough search I have ever encountered. After about 90 minutes I was given the "okay". During the end of the soldiers search he had gotten less interested in examining my underwear, battery packs and other belongings so he was less thorough...and missed my knife which wasn't hidden at all :)
I was told that I could now backtrack to Kentzou to get my exit stamp. WHAT?! Go back? Wasn't this done at the border? Fearing that I would need to return for another 90 minute mind game of searching my bag I hesitated. Then entrusted the soldiers with my belongings and securely locked them. Back through the rainforest the fog had lifted and there were now some farmers and villagers along the road. I had my passport stamped and we once again returned to the border. All good...I could pass...
The Central African Republic:
I payed the mototaxi driver an amount which he wasn't completely happy about but which I knew was more than enough. Because we had to return to Kentzou the original amount wasn't quite enough anymore. But I'm not humoring greed. It's always good to know the approximate monthly salary or how much they can earn in a full day.
As I walked towards the small broken bridge which would bring me across the narrow waters that separated Cameroon from CAR I spotted something to my left. A machine canon was sitting heavily on the river bank pointing towards CAR. It was guarded by sandbags and soldiers helmets where neatly stacked next to it. It looked like if someone was ready for war...
On the worst road ever.
Across the bridge I met a very humble shack which hosted some military personal from CAR. I managed to make them laugh which is always good. Soon after they had accepted my documents and let me pass. Before me was the continuation of the red dirt road through more rainforest... I was told that police and immigration was 3 kilometers up road and a small heard of mototaxis were eager to carry my there. But they wanted around 20 times as much as the price would have been just across the bridge where I came from. And it wasn't negotiable. And they also refused that the distance to immigration was only 3 kilometers - it was at least 10!! Calling their bluff I began walking towards the forest...but no one came running after me offering a better price. I didn't want to look back...pride...but I was weak, exhausted and running low on water...not so ideal. I decided to walk at least out of the mototaxi's sight and around the corner. And as I did that I would reassess my situation: how stupid was I? :)
According to Google maps I was less than 3 kilometers from the border village of Gamboula. I could definitely muster up the strength for that hike although the sun was starting to bake on me. Th a truck appeared behind me and I was able to stop it. They didn't speak English but they spoke money. The ride to Berbérati 100 kilometers beyond the border should costs CFA 2,000. They wanted 3,000 and I didn't bargain much...and away we went. At Gamboula I had som help with immigration from the co-driver. And the "station" checking my vaccination cards was manned by a jolly fellow wearing a T-shirt from a local Danish sports club sponsored by a local Danish bank :)
These trucks run from Berbérati in CAR to Douala in Cameroon - and then back again!
The road was awful but scenically beautiful. If I hadn't already been on the road leading up to the border then I might have said that this was the worst road I had ever been on. But now it was only a close second. After another 100 kilometers we reached Berbérati which is the second largest city in CAR. It has no paved roads, no lampposts and a lot more trees than people. It was in 2003 estimated to have more than 70,000 people but with war and conflict many have left. It could possibly still have around 70,000...but it could also be a city of 20,000 which someone told me was more likely. It doesn't really matter...it feels like a place with a few thousand at most.
But Berbérati is a very charming place. It is easy to escape the sounds of a city and find yourself surrounded by child laughter, conversation and tweeting birds. Berbérati has a lot of history to offer and not all of it will put a smile on your face. The fight is not over in CAR but no matter what you hear then please remember that it is a country full of people who desire the most basic things in life. Odds are that when the news starts reporting you will only hear about the horror. To me the real horror is when we do not hear about the people.
Walking around in Berbérati will most likely have you somewhat confused. Am I in a city or in a forest? As I looked around I couldn't help thinking that the nature could easily remove Berbérati from the face of the planet in just 10 years if there was no human activity. Imagine a city with no paved roads? How hard would it be for grass and plants to grow there?
On my first day I ran into Jimba who is the head of the office for the french Red Cross. He and his team are doing a spectacular job in supporting the local Red Cross of CAR. And when the french Red Cross one day leaves then CAR Red Cross will have much stronger legs to stand on.
The area is full of NGO's (Non Governmental Organizations) who have all come to help, support and rebuild in one way or the other. There was a time when the Red Cross was pretty much the only "player" but today you see so many NGO's. Som are doing a wonderful job while others are more doubtful within their approach. What I can say for sure is that I have never heard of an NGO that was doing anything which the Red Cross wasn't already doing. Experience and know how since 1863 is no small thing ;)
Locals in Berbérati have not seen many tourists. Jimba has been there for more than a year and has not seen any tourist in that period. I'm not really a tourist. I'm a traveler. An adventurer. But I'm certainly the closest thing to a tourist that Berbérati has seen for a long time :)
Jimba is a great guy. He manages to find 25 hours in a day and still have a smile on his face. When I met him I looked like something the cat had just dragged in. But Jimba just smiled and gave me an opportunity to take a bath, shave a bit, rest up and eat some food. If you would have told me that I could only have stayed for one night before I had to go back from where I came then I would have cried. I was so exhausted. But I was welcome and stayed for several nights.
I met 70 year old Mama, a "real" witch, who knows her plants and what they can cure. She has a great sense of humor and when told that I had reached 96 countries without flying she stepped back and shouted: "witchcraft, witchcraft!!" Then she smiled and winked her eye at me :)
During the day the sky would be blue with beautiful white clouds here and there. Then in the afternoon the heavy rain would fall and the thunder and lightning would accompany it. But then just before sunset the rain would lift and a beautiful sunset would appear. Everyday like clockwork. Except for the last day where the rain stayed away and the temperature got unbearable! That goes to prove how cooling the rain can be.
Lots of adorable houses hidden in privacy.
I enjoyed hanging out in Berbérati and the stories of what was going on only a few hundred kilometers away was in deep contrast to what I experienced. Someone said that Berbérati along with most of CAR is the kind of place that can be turned upside down in less than 24 hours. So travel with care. But don't be scared.
When I spoke with the media I was encouraged to say something towards the end which could help reunite a divided country. I think I said something along the lines of this: "it takes effort to create conflict. Without that effort we will live in harmony as we all go on about with our lives". I think that is true to some extent. Naturally some conflicts arise from time to time...but to keep them going takes a lot of effort and a lot of energy. Whatever I actually said on the radio was highly praised and had been heard by many. How many I will never know.
The French Red Cross had some business at the border so I was able to get a lift. If they had had offered to give me a lift to the border just because of me then I would have purely denied! Once Upon A Saga (OUAS) is not a project which takes from the resources of the Red Cross. OUAS is financially sponsored by Ross Offshore and that is enough. Whatever resources the Red Cross has is for the people who need it. But since the Red Cross was going in the same direction I saw no harm in getting into the Toyota Land Cruiser.
Ali, former Red Cross president in Berbérati, always smiling - now a refugee.
Coming back across the border was easy. But I had to wait several hours for transport away from Kentzou. I spent my time sitting next to the former president of Berbérati Red Cross. He is now a fugitive and is currently in waiting. Waiting for the results of the upcoming elections which might mean that he can return. He wants nothing more than to be in Berbérati but his religion makes it unsafe for him. So while in Kentzou he is the leader of a refugee committee. And they just received another 77 refugees hidden in a 20' container coming down that terrible road from Berbérati. I saw the list with the names and ages of all the refugees. Most of them were children below 7 years of age. Once in a while a name would have a text next to it stating: "family responsible". Too often that name would belong to a 15 year old.
Life in Kentzou.
I was stuffed into a Toyota Corolla and headed towards Batouri where I hoped to see Joseph again if only for a few minutes. Actually the wise choice would have been to spend the night. But I pushed on. I did however see Joseph who gave me a very sensual hug and told me that he had been missing me? Then he asked how my girlfriend was doing.
Another Toyota taxi got a group of us to Bertoua and from there I caught the last bus just before midnight along with a guy named John. We tried sleeping in the bus but that was hard work. The lights would constantly come on as we all had to disembark and greet the checkpoints and show documents. The sensible thing would have been to stay and sleep in Bertoua. But I pushed on.
Somehow, no matter the hour, there is always someone ready to sell something.
At 05:00 in the morning the bus arrived to Yaoundé and I quickly found my way to my oasis. I haven't mentioned this before but the last time I was in Yaoundé I met Papa (yup, that's his name). He is from Senegal but works in Cameroon and has done so for a while. He lives in Yaoundé with his beautiful wife and 2 beautiful daughters and they just so happen to have a guest room which I can use. Their hospitality lacks nothing at all! :)
Since I came back I have been quite exhausted. I have slept a lot and I have been eating a lot but it doesn't seem to cover my needs. I must be much more exhausted than usual. Normally I can reload with some sleep and good food. But this demands a little more. Oh well, what I have Ben up to lately hasn't exactly been a walk in the park ;)
I'll be hanging around in Yaoundé for some time as I will try to get all the visas I can here. Cameroon is a great country with a diverse nature, culture and friendly population. And Yaoundé has all the embassies I need. Let's hope that my energy bounces back quickly and that the visas come through fast. We are getting close to 100 countries now. Isn't this exiting? :)
Papa on the far right and Cheikh in the middle.
And do you remember the CFA 50,000 I mentioned in the beginning? I came back to Yaoundé 8 days after leaving N'Djamena in Chad...and I had CFA 20,000 left... ;)
Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - unstoppable because of you ;)
Once Upon A Saga